Summer jobs on slow rebound from recession-era nadir

Lauren Barron started as a server at Inferno Brick Oven and Bar last week. After an internship fell through, she needed income for expenses typified by college life. During previous summers, Barron, a senior, had gone home to Reading, a place where the rent was free and the electric bill was addressed to someone else.

Her downtown State College apartment, shared with four other roommates, costs her about $550 a month in rent, she said, not including payments for utilities. She’s lived there since sophomore year.

So for the first summer since she enrolled at Penn State, Barron got a job.

“I knew by the end of spring semester that I needed more spending money,” Barron, 21, said. “So I knew I wanted to continue to have a job through the fall and next spring.”

A rite of passage for many teens and young adults, the summer job has taken a bit of a roller coaster ride since “Summer Holiday” first flashed on drive-in screens in 1948.

Since that year, the first in which data began to be recorded, teen summer employment ebbed and flowed between 46 percent and 58 percent, according to Pew Research Center. A trio of recessions (1990-1991, 2001, 2007-2009), however, stunted the rhythm and slowed the ride to a crawl. Last summer, Pew reported that for youth 16 to 19 years old, the summer employment rate was 31.3 percent — up from the nadir of 29.6 percent in 2010 and 2011.

In recent years, however, the summer employment rate for youth has steadied. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the youth labor force participation rate was at 60 percent last year, a similar figure to the year before. The rate generally takes a sharp uptick between April and July, reflecting the surge in seasonal employment.

“We hire a lot of local kids who are around for summer vacation,” said Steve Greecher, the director of aquatics at the Bellefonte YMCA. “And we hire a lot of Penn State students who are looking for summer jobs.”

Between the Bellefonte, State College and Kepler Pool at Governor’s Park locations, Greecher estimates he has about 25 to 30 lifeguards or swim instructors, most of whom fall between the 16-to-24 age range that defines the BLS’s parameters for “youth.” The BLS reported that the number of employed youth grew by 2.1 million to 20.3 million last year.

Despite their youth, Greecher’s charges are expected to coordinate schedules via an online system, keep their certifications updated and communicate with managerial staff.

Then there’s also the part that involves guarding lives.

“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Greecher said. “And it says a lot about the kids who take on that responsibility.”

For Santina Atkinson, the general manager at the College 9 Theatre, the summer brings blockbusters and the attendant crowds. All but a few of her employees are college or high school students, she said, while several who come on board are starting their first job. Atkinson hired three employees this summer.

“The main things we look for are responsbility and willingness to work at a theater because we have weird hours compared to a normal nine-to-five job,” Atkinson said. “We have a lot of slow time and busy time.”

Atkinson started with UEC Theatres, which owns College 9, 12 years ago as an usher and also spent time in the box office and concessions. Like Greecher, Atkinson said she has hired employees as young as 15 years old. The legal age for minors to perform non-farm work in Pennsylvania is 14.

Being able to relate to her employees, however inexperienced, makes the transition easier, Atkinson said.

“It makes a little easier for training if they’re a little scared because it’s their first job,” she added.

Kyle Zoscin, the front of house manager at The Corner Room restaurant, said about 40 percent of his staff are college students. In considering new hires, he said availability and location matter.

“Normally when we see someone from State College, Bellefonte, Port Matilda, they get a little bit more consideration normally in hiring because it helps us out over summer and breaks so much,” Zoscin said.

While business slows with the mass exodus from the campus, crowds peak during Arts Fest and move-in weekend near the end of August. Zoscin, who has worked in the hospitality industry since his freshman year, pointed to soft skills such as affability having as much impact as hard skills or previous experience.

Skylar Wassink, 20, works with Barron at Inferno. Hired about a fortnight ago, she’s already made enough to cover her $600 rent with a little spending money left over. During Memorial Day weekend, the next month’s payment was taken care of in one night.

“That was insane,” Wassink said. “I made like $600.”

She said making herself available over Arts Fest and football weekends in the fall helped her get the job. She’s putting a portion of her earnings — “at least 90 percent of it is in tips” — toward savings.

For Barron, the job is just another part of growing up.

“My parents have been helping me for a while, but as I’m getting older they’re helping less and less,” Barron said, laughing. “Which is understandable.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy